Logo: University of Southern California

Piloting His Future

Air Force pilot Brendan Ross credits USC Viterbi’s DEN program with allowing him to pursue a master’s degree from a land far, far away.
By: Samantha Romero
November 11, 2014 —


KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, Brendan Ross (far left), alongside his colleagues after his 100th combat flight.

An undisclosed location in the Middle East, surrounded by desert where temperatures reach a scorching high of 130 degrees during the day and 80 degrees at night. Some people might consider this hell on earth, but Brendan Ross, a 26-year-old Air Force captain and pilot, calls it his classroom. 

While attending classes on campus is the norm for the majority of USC Viterbi students, such is not the case for Ross, a student in the Distance Education Network at Viterbi, or DEN@Viterbi. A typical day for him involves flying a KC-135 Stratotanker on the other side of the world, thousands of feet in the air. His job is to refuel other jets while flying in midair.

Ross has always had a keen interest in aerospace and flying. After graduating from Winter Springs High School in Winter Springs, Fla., he decided to enroll in the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he graduated as a second lieutenant with a bachelor’s degree and a pilot slot. After completing pilot training Ross earned his pilot wings. He has served in the Air Force for the past four and a half years.

Although he proudly serves his country, his military responsibilities and far away deployment prevented the physics graduate from pursuing an advanced degree in aerodynamics.

That is until he discovered DEN, USC Viterbi’s online program that U.S. News & World Report ranks among the nation’s best. The program offers students like Ross a flexible schedule and over 40 master's degree programs, graduate certificates and professional (non-credit) courses to choose from. 

“USC provided everything I was looking for: a masters degree in engineering, online flexibility, and a quality education,” Ross said. “I also saw that USC Viterbi's DEN program was one of the best in the country. It was an opportunity that I had to pursue, and so far it is paying off.” 

DEN allows Ross to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace and mechanical engineering, while being deployed in the Middle East and working full time. Ross hopes to graduate in May 2016.

High quality lecture capture systems and interactive tools allow students to stay up to date with class material, communicate and collaborate with each other and faculty online.

“Anytime I fly on a day we have class, I can just catch the lecture or the notes the next day,” said Ross. “Or if I am on the other side of the world, I don't have to worry about trying to make it to class. I can simply use my laptop and get all the information I need.”

Binh Tran, DEN@Viterbi's executive director, noted there are approximately 1,000 students enrolled in the program each year. So far the program has been a success for online students with a graduation rate of 85 percent.

Ross said he has been able to put into practice the concepts, math and science that he has learned and apply it to his duties as a pilot. Ross plans on continuing to build on his USC Viterbi education in aerospace research and pilot testing.  

“Anything in flight testing is intriguing, and being the pilot to verify any research being done would be amazing,” said Ross.